There has been a lot of negativity around the Kentucky Football program over the last year, and some of it has been well deserved. However, there is a lot of positive momentum going that will hopefully continue into the season. Because we try to look at the positives as much as the negatives here at the WBN, I’ve got six reasons for you to get excited for the 2012 season and beyond.
1. YOUNG TALENT
There has got to be more young talent on this team than ever before. If you look across the depth chart, the best or most promising players at almost every position are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores. The staff has recruited very well over the past two classes and it has paid off in depth and should pay off into the future. Guys like Bud Dupree, Glen Faulkner, Daryl Collins, Josh Clemons, etc have Kentucky fans thinking about NFL futures for their players for the first time in several years. The future certainly looks bright for the roster, and if the youngsters can acclimate quickly, the present is looking good too.
At first glance, UK’s schedule looks particularly brutal. Contests against Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas look especially rough and it would be easy to think that the Cats are in for a long season. However, at second glance, UK got a pretty darn good draw. Seven of the teams twelve games will be played inside the confines of Commonwealth stadium and road trips to Louisville, Missouri, and Tennessee are all winnable games that fans can travel to. Arkansas is reeling with all their offseason turmoil, Florida (while still talented) is not the Florida of the Tebow era, and Missouri isn’t the toughest team we could have drawn. There is no Alabama, Auburn, LSU orTexas A&M on the schedule either. Realistically, an SEC schedule can (and probably should) be tougher than this one. It won’t be a Big East cakewalk like some teams have, but it could be a lot worse.
3. DEFENSIVE LINE
People always like to talk about SEC speed, but the truth is that the receivers, backs, corners and other skill positions are about as fast or faster in many other conferences. The thing that has always set the SEC apart is the speed in the trenches, specifically on the defensive line. Think about it for a second, every time UK has had a highly competitive team, there has been a Jeremy Jarmon, Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, Dennis Johnson, or Sweat Pea Burns type of player or players on the defensive line. It really is the difference between the wildcats having a GREAT year or a disappointing one. This season, UK will feature the best defensive front it’s had in years with senior Collins Ukwu at defensive end, juniors Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble at the defensive tackle positions, and Sophomore phenom Bud Dupree at the linebacker/defensive end hybrid position. Ukwu has played extensively since his redshirt freshman season, Cobble has started since his sophomore season (and was projected to start as a RS-FR before being ruled ineligible), and Rumph started as a sophomore and played a ton as a true freshman. While he may not be a true lineman, Bud Dupree came in as a true freshman last season and made a huge splash on the defense. All-in-all, there is more talent, experience, and athleticism on Kentucky’s defensive line than any time I can remember.
How could the weakest link in 2011′s team be a reason for optimism? Because there’s nowhere to go but up. The team returns everyone but Matt Roark (graduated) and Brian Adams (gave up football for his baseball career), and a year of focus should pay off. LaRod King, Gene McCaskill, Aaron Boyd, and E.J. Fields will all be seniors and some of the younger players have stood out early on. Sophomore Demarco Robinson was electrifying in the spring game and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins should finally be healed up and ready to contribute. Fellow redshirt freshmen Rashad Cunningham and Bookie Cobbins should be ready to go as well and incoming true freshmen A.J. Legree and Demarcus Sweat have already made waves in camp. What was a weakness has now become a position of strength and promise. With six players at the position that’s will be freshmen, redshirt-freshmn, or true sophomores. That’s a lot of young talent that is only going to get better.
5. RUNNING BACK
If there’s one position that the Wildcats are absolutely STACKED at, it has to be running back. Senior walk-on CoShik Williams was able to prove his worth last season when injuries piled up at the position and he returns this year for one last go-round. Williams may not. E an every down back in the SEC, but he has proved to be very effective when he gets in the game on numerous occasions. Ray Sanders will return as UK’s all-purpose back that can run, block, and catch the ball out of the backfield. Now his biggest challenges will be making it through an entire season and holding off the younger players. Junior Jonathan George has seen precious few caries in games, but he had a big performance in the spring game and he is a well-rounded player that has waited patiently for his turn to contribute. Sophomore Josh Clemons is recovering from the knee injury that cut his freshman season short. If he can bounce back, he is probably the best of the bunch and the clear-cut starter, but that’s a big IF at this point. Then you throw in freshmen phenoms Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor who have been the biggest stars in camp so far, and the biggest problem the team might have is to find carries for all the players.
So, Kentucky has a senior that’s a former Parade All-American, a sophomore that came in and played very well as a true freshman, a top-20 player from The state of Alabama, and a current Parade All-American vying for the starting job. While that sounds good enough, the more intriguing thing to me is how different each player is. In Maxwell Smith, you have a guy that lacks elite athleticism, but is cool under pressure, a natural leader, and a blossoming young player. In Morgan Newton, you have an big, powerful athlete that can make the big time throw, but also has been suspect I his time here thus far. In Jalen Whitlow, you have an uber-athlete that can beat defenses with his arm and legs, and in Patrick Towles, you have the perfect blend of leadership, athleticism, intelligence, and size. The only thing he’s lacking is playing experience. There are four good, but very different options for the staff to give a look to at the quarterback position and it should make for an electric camp. More importantly, the competition should brig out the best in each guy and give UK something to guild on in the future.